Saturday, February 18, 2017

Howard Johnson and Gravity's Testimony on CD

A few weeks ago I was driving home late at night, listening to the local jazz station up here in Syracuse. It was yet another typically snowy evening and I was trying to focus on the road. Suddenly I heard the most beautiful and unusual music I've heard in a long time--a simple jazz trio playing standards, a trio that consisted of drums, bass and--get this--a harp. I didn't get the name of the trio or the recording, so it will remain a mystery for now--unless Tidal can solve this mystery for me. But I need to find that music and hear it again.

I bring this up to illustrate that something as simple and well-defined as a jazz ensemble can become something extraordinary and unusual with a minor tweak here or there. Case in point: Howard Johnson and Gravity. Based in New York, this ensemble is described in the liner notes as a "ten-piece tuba choir," a moniker I have not heard until now. Johnson himself has been a part of the New York City jazz scene since he arrived in the '60s, and he is known as a master of "low brass"--tuba, baritone sax and bass clarinet. (He also plays a mean electric bass guitar.) Testimony almost serves as a musical sampler for these instruments, and it's amazing how these jazz standards are transformed into something completely new and exciting when "low brass" is placed front and center.

Gravity is, indeed, a tuba choir. Johnson, Velvet Brown, Dave Bargeron, Earl McIntyre, Joseph Daley, Bob Stewart and guest player Joe Exleyall play various tubas with various pitches--BB♭, F, E♭, CC, whatever you got. Pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum and drummer Buddy Williams flesh out the sound and make the ensemble sound much larger than it is--more like a big band. We are even treated to a couple of stunning vocalists--most notably Nedra Johnson on a rousing, sultry version of "Working Hard for the Joneses." The overall effect is loose and fun, a collection of long-time friends who really enjoy playing together.

My only objection to this collection is when Johnson takes a turn on solo pennywhistle on "Little Black Lucille." Compared to the low brass, the pennywhistle is far too whimsical and silly and this great ensemble loses some of its, well, gravity. I have to be honest--I skip the track entirely when I listen to Testimony. It just doesn't fit. The rest of the album, however, is wonderful. It reminds me of listening to the incredible Double Bass Concertos LP from Opus3 from the '70s, where's it's strange and unsettling at first to hear an instrument with such low registers take over as the lead solo instrument and then your ears adjust and you suddenly hear all the textures and subtleties. Having an entire choir of low brass is something even more extraordinary, with even more textures to explore.

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